Manchester City ride their luck to overcome Leicester and move third
MANCHESTER, England -- Three points from Manchester City's controversial 2-1 win over Leicester which moves them up to third place.
1. City get the decisions as Mahrez slips up
Chelsea strode to the Premier League title Friday night, but behind them in the group of teams competing for the admittedly rich scraps of Champions League qualification, Manchester City are not moving toward their goal with the same certainty.
Securing a spot in the top four is in City's hands, but they had to rely on a bizarre disallowed penalty to secure a 2-1 win over Leicester on Saturday, a victory that temporarily took them up into third place. Goals from David Silva and Gabriel Jesus were ultimately enough, but a brilliant first-half volley from Shinji Okazaki and that penalty, ruled out after Riyad Mahrez slipped and kicked the ball twice while taking it, made the closing stages extremely nervy.
At full-time, manager Pep Guardiola strode onto the pitch with a look of anger on his face, stomping around with lip snarled and presumably informing his players that, despite the win, the preceding 90 minutes had not been acceptable. This may have been harsh, but it was not a convincing performance from a City side that continued to underwhelm.
City spurned a few chances early on, notably a free header by Fernandinho and a close-range effort from Leroy Sane that he dragged across goal. Wilfred Ndidi missed a similar opportunity for Leicester, a header going awry from a corner. Both defences contained holes you could drive a bus through, and the early stages suggested goals would arrive in short order.
The first goal duly arrived just before the half-hour mark: Sane drove in from the left, crossed low back to Silva whose mishit shot bobbled into the corner of the net. Leicester complained at length because Raheem Sterling, standing a quarter-of-a-yard offside when Silva struck the ball, swung a leg at the shot as it hopped over the line but didn't seem to make contact: nonetheless, they argued that he was interfering with play simply by being in Kasper Schmeichel's eyeline and attempting to touch the ball. After a short period of mild confusion, referee Bobby Madley dismissed the protests, and City were in the lead.
Five minutes later Sane broke into the area then fell under a comically clumsy challenge from Yohan Benalouane. Jesus claimed the ball from birthday boy Yaya Toure, gave Schmeichel the eyes and tucked the spot kick into the bottom corner.
With Sane giving Danny Simpson a torrid time down the left, the signs were that the afternoon could get ugly for Leicester, but a few minutes later they pulled one back. Marc Albrighton hit a sizzling right-footed cross from the left, which was slightly behind Okazaki, but the Japan striker somehow managed to contort his body and smack an astonishing left-footed volley into the roof of the net. It very nearly took the tips of Willy Caballero's fingers with it.
Leicester improved after the break, and with 14 minutes remaining, Mahrez jinked into the box, beat Clichy easily, and the full-back chopped him down. Mahrez himself stepped up but slipped, and the ball rebounded between his kicking and standing foot and went into the net.
While referee Madley had received plenty of opprobrium from both sides throughout, he spotted this one and correctly disallowed the goal. A slightly surreal state of affairs, but ultimately it saved City. Three points gained, but not convincingly.
2. Gabriel raw but confident
If there's a dictionary definition of "embarrassment of riches," then a picture of a fit Sergio Aguero sitting on the Manchester City bench should probably feature in it. There might be some areas of Guardiola's squad that are deficient, but this isn't one of them.
After a couple of games in which Guardiola tried to pair Aguero with Gabriel Jesus, for the second fixture running, he chose to start the Brazilian ahead of his more senior colleague. Guardiola clearly favours the movement and pace that Gabriel provides, despite Aguero's status as a City legend already.
If nothing else, you have to admire Gabriel's chutzpah. Not too many 20-year-olds would stride up to Toure on his birthday and remove the ball from his hands before converting a penalty. He did just that and slotted home with the appropriate confidence.
Yet the youngster is still raw and without the nous of the great Argentine: he hasn't yet learned exactly when to make the sort of smart runs that an elite centre-forward should. On a couple of occasions, he was on his heels when through-balls would have given him a free run on goal, and on another he hung back when Sane had a chance to square on the edge of the six-yard box, an easy chance missed.
Guardiola wrote in his programme notes before the game that taking chances had been City's big problem this season, so in that respect, one could question choosing Gabriel over Aguero, but it's a fiendishly tricky decision. Still, like a man forced to choose between the Porsche and the Ferrari in his garage, few will be crying many tears for him.
3. Leicester showing some fight
Former Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri's name was sung by both sets of fans at various points during this game: by the visiting fans with fond remembrance; by the visitors with an accusation that he had been "stabbed in the back."
What this game showed beyond doubt is that the February decision to ignore sentiment and dismiss the title-winning Italian was entirely correct. Back then, this was either a team who had stopped listening to their manager or he had stopped being able to communicate effectively with them. But under Craig Shakespeare they appear to have a little more grit and solidarity.
Even with a patched-up defence, they gave an admittedly disjointed City a good game, certainly in the second-half, Wilfred Ndidi providing the sort of ballast in their midfield that had previously been lacking. There is still the occasional flash of dynamism and quality, a faint echo of last season when they were so confident as to almost score goals and produce devastating counterattacks by force of will. Okazaki's goal was one example of that, as were a few runs by Jamie Vardy.
They may have lost this game, but with West Brom floundering ahead of them, they could still finish eighth. Considering where they were at the point of Ranieri's sacking, that would be an extraordinary result.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.